Magnus the Martyr

Every now and again I drag colleagues out at lunchtime for a ramble. They’re kind and don’t complain and a few even come back each time. I’m grateful.

We’re on Blackfriars Road. From here the Thames is a minute or two away, Borough south and east, Waterloo and Lambeth west and the City due north. With all that in front of us there’s no end of options for an hour or so of strolling with intent to absorb centuries of history and modern-day marvels of the capital.

Yesterday we went with the wild west wind, first across the bridge and then along the north bank towpath of the Thames. The path ducks in and out and under buildings and bridges, leaving the river altogether for a stretch along Lower Thames Street and passing wall-tiles bearing historic views of the city. A mighty mosaic lines the Anglo-Saxon dock at Queenhithe telling the story of London. Rather than the beery behemoths on the south bank, pubs here are small and somewhat hidden. Runners duck and weave, jogging-boxing.

In due course we arrive at St Magnus the Martyr, a little to the east of London Bridge. Or not, if you know what you’re looking for. Even if you just pause and look in the porch of Wren’s tower the truth is revealed. Here a blue plaque states that the church was on the pathway that led from the City across old London Bridge from 1176 to 1831. Merchants, travellers, royalty and vagabonds all went this way, down Fish Street Hill, across Thames Street and over the bridge on their way south. Sometimes they were simply heading to the Borough for some naughty. At other times Antwerp, Venice or Constantinople would have been the end of the line. St Magnus saw them all pass, and then kept an arm around them. Two-thirds of the bridge was within the parish of St Magnus.

Inside there is an impressively horn-helmeted statue of the Orcadian saint retro-fitted as the definitive Magnus of yore, despite competing claims from namesakes. In truth, no-one is sure which St Magnus the church is named for, just like it is opaque why the shelves by the belfry are lined with plastic bread rolls.

Most visitors are too busy gawping at the superb stained glasses dedicated to saints of other churches absorbed into St Magnus’ parish and the wonderful model of Old London Bridge to care. This comes complete with a procession, rowdy apprentices, pilgrims and a lone out-of-time policemen. This represents David T. Aggett, a former bobby who made the model. What a talented chap, and what a legacy to leave.

By now I was quite overwhelmed by all the wonderful stuff to be found in here, and more than out of historical guff to share with everyone. I was pondering the bridge, its chapel to St Thomas (a’Becket) and its gatehouses. Its traitors heads on spikes. Its piers, houses and inhabitants. What happened to all these people? Where has this London gone, and how is it connected to today?

We can’t stay in the lost world. We turned our back on time-travelling. The modern bridge, now a few yards upstream, struggles to deliver romance. It is grey and unless you pass under it by night, lacking colour and identity. It cannot help being in the wrong place.  We did our best and remained upbeat: walking across it in good cheer heading for a pint in The Market Porter, busy with Christmas revellers. Afterwards, back to the office via Southwark Street, where the ghosts of trams rattled in the darkening December sky.

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